Alpine, TX: My Heaven on Earth

 

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Images: (1) My daughters and nephew horsing around in front of Twin Peaks, Alpine’s iconic mountains; (2) Luz and Paloma play tourist in front of one of the many beautiful murals in downtown Alpine, Texas; (3) Hiking Hancock Hill, behind Sul Ross State University. The relatively short hike leads to a 360-degree view that you can admire from a desk students planted years ago. 

About 12 years ago, I met the magical place that would become my family’s second home. My good friend Betty Gaddis Yndo had invited me to participate in something called “ArtWalk” in a small West Texas town called Alpine, Texas. I gathered a dozen or so paintings and drove straight down highway 90, arriving in the picturesque little town six hours later.

It was love at first sight.

The drive itself had been calming, as we stopped through tiny towns that became less and less frequent after grabbing lunch in Del Rio, the last “big city” on the road. Once we crossed the Pecos High bridge, a 32-story engineering marvel that once was the second-highest bridge in the U.S., the skies opened up and the desert greeted us with its wide vistas and cooler temperatures.

My husband, Vic, helped me hang my show at a local bakery, and we spent the rest of the weekend exploring the town’s many cute cafes, shops, and bars and hiking Hancock Hill, the trail-filled mini mountain behind Sul Ross State University. We became smitten with the town’s walkability and charm, the cool desert nights and majestic sunsets, and the starry night sky. The place took our breath away. After a romantic long weekend, we vowed to find a way to make Alpine our home—a goal we achieved less than three years later when we bought an abandoned building and turned it into the Murphy Street Raspa Co., an homage to Tex-Mex culture specializing in gourmet shaved ice (since sold and reborn as the incredible Murphy Street Mercado).

When we moved back to San Antonio a few years later (and a couple months before welcoming Baby #2), we left a big piece of our heart in Alpine. We visit frequently, and my husband and I often indulge in late-night conversations about moving back permanently after our girls go off to college. A couple months ago we gleefully purchased two acres there, which will be our landing pad for family vacations and exploring more of our beloved Big Bend country. Now that our kids aren’t babies anymore (Luz is eight, and Paloma is five), we enjoy going on longer hikes as a family. But even families with littles can enjoy the outdoors with walking trails at Kokernot Park, or a short hike at the nearby Chihuahuan Desert Research Institute. There are so many fun things for families to do in Alpine that we keep going back every few months. In fact, this coming Spring Break we plan on spending the full week there—first, to enjoy a few days in Alpine, and then, to enjoy all of the family-friendly fun the area has to offer.

With more than 5,000 residents, Alpine is the “metropolis” in the area, making it the perfect base for longer stays in the vicinity. All the “big city” comforts are there, including multiple grocery stores and numerous dining options seven days a week (don’t count on this in the smaller surrounding towns). As an artist, I especially appreciate the numerous galleries in town and the beautiful public murals that add vibrancy and character to the downtown streets. Marfa, Fort Davis, and Marathon are each a half hour drive or less, and the majestic Big Bend National Park is less than two hours south. Balmorhea, the largest spring-fed natural pool in the state, is just one hour away, and the road there is one of the most scenic drives in the state. Just thinking about it makes me want to grab a swimsuit, hop in the car, and head west.

While it would be easy for me to ramble on for hours about the countless memories and good times I’ve had in Alpine, I think the most prudent thing would be to give you my hand-picked recs for planning your own family trip to this magical town. I’ve only scratched the surface with this list.

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Image credits (from left to right): Joseph Losoya, Jim Glendinning, Benjamin Martinez, Tanner Quigg, visitalpinetx.com. Behind Sul Ross State University, at the top of Hancock Hill, is the legendary “desk.” The breathtaking, 360-degree views are worth the climb.

Places to Stay

The Holland Hotel: Recently remodeled, this historic hotel is smack dab in the middle of town and offers unique, tastefully appointed rooms. A truly beautiful, upscale hotel with a luxurious lobby, upscale restaurant, and modern loft-style rooms in the adjacent newer addition.

The Maverick Inn: A Santa Fe-style boutique hotel that features a pool and many luxury amenities.

Antelope Lodge: A quirky little community featuring charming stucco cabins with kitchenettes.

Holiday Inn Express: One of the town’s newest lodging additions, complete with an indoor pool and all the standard HIE amenities you’d expect, including a business center.

Hampton Inn: Clean, comfortable hotel with a free hot breakfast.

Places to Eat

FishCat Cafe: Creative, fresh Japanese food lovingly repaired by Seiko and served out of an artfully decorated Airstream and outdoor dining area on Murphy Street. The sesame noodles are addictive, but everything is delicious.

Cowdog: Hands down, the best all-beef hot dogs anywhere, with creative twists like my personal favorites, “El Pastor” (with grilled pineapple, cilantro pesto, and lime mayo) and the “Wing Dog” (complete with buffalo sauce and Ranch or blue cheese). Offers a great veggie burger and “tater flops” too, so it appeals to vegetarians as well.

Judy’s Bread and Breakfast: Adorable sunlit cafe on Holland Street in downtown Alpine featuring breakfast classics and baked goods as well as simple sandwiches.

Magoo’s: Simple, tasty Tex-Mex, including a spicy huevos rancheros dish that’s one of kind.

Reata: Classic, rustic steakhouse with a great bar and patio; in operation for two decades.

Century Bar and Grill: Elegant setting in the beautiful historic Holland Hotel, this newer dining options offers excellent food, a fun bar menu, and an inviting courtyard patio.

Taste and See Bakery: Freshly milled specialty grains baked into delicious breads, quiches, muffins, frittata, and other yummy treats. Beautiful dining room is well-stocked with games, colored pencils, and more.

Coffee and Treats

Plaine: The sister to Frama in Marfa, both cleverly named anagrams from their respective towns, a theme further enhanced by the Scrabble-board menu. Featuring a large selection of coffee drinks and the best ice cream in town, made by Henry’s.

Cedar Coffee Supply: Minimalist modern decor, delicious coffee, and incredible crepes and waffles.

Places to Shop

Historic Murphy Street: Located just south of the train tracks, Murphy Street between 5th and 7th streets is home to an array of shops, restaurants, and studios, including the eclectic Murphy Street Mercado and artist Tom Curry’s unique studio and gallery that he hand-crafted out of paper crete.

Kiowa Gallery: Beautiful art gallery featuring Art of the Big Bend, including paintings, jewelry, ceramics, a ladies’ boutique, and more. The owner and founder of the store, Keri Blackman, founded Alpine’s Artwalk and is a talented stained glass artist and art expert.

Front Street Books: Charming independent bookstore featuring new, used, and out-of-print titles.

Gallery on the Square: Co-op run by and featuring the work of local and regional artists.

Places to Drink and Be Merry

The Saddle Club: Beautifully-decorated, cozy, art-filled bar with a creative menu.

Big Bend Brewery: Featuring the “beer from out here,” this beautiful brewery boasts a very happy tap room and offers tours and uber-cool branded merch for beer lovers. I shamelessly bring my kids, and no one blinks an eye.

Railroad Blues: Every square inch of this live music venue and bar oozes with character, from the poster-paper walls to the smoky pool room and mind-boggling beer selection. Come ready to dance.

Century Bar and Grill: (see link and description in dining)

Reata: (see link and description in dining)

Harry’s Tinaja: A total dive bar, owned by the always-entertaining Harry Mois, who hails from Germany and used to brew his own beer back in the day. Cheap drafts and a ceiling covered in bras and dollars bills.

Ole Crystal Bar: Reopened under new ownership last year, The Crystal has all the small town bar necessities, including a jukebox, pool table, and plenty to drink.

Kid-Friendly Adventures in Alpine

The Museum of the Big Bend: Make this small but informative and welcoming museum your first stop. Located on the campus of Sul Ross State University, includes a gift shop and temporary exhibits in addition to the permanent collection.

Wasserman Wranch: Located in scenic Sunny Glenn on the west side of Alpine, this kid paradise features a red kangaroo, friendly donkeys, an alpaca, a miniature horse, and more! Call or email for more information. 

Double Diamond Art Walk: Stop by the Alpine visitor’s center to pick up a map to this off-the-beaten-path gem eight miles south of town. Includes a scenic walking path filled with handmade metal creatures all welded by a resident of Double Diamond. The larger-than-life metal animals and insects are as much fun for adults as they are for kids.

Kokernot and Baines Parks: Kokernot features a lovely level walking trail and lots of playground equipment. Baines Park is on 5th Street near the top of the hill on the south side of town, offering an impressive panoramic view of the town, playground spaces, and covered picnic tables.

Farmer’s Market: Held every Saturday morning just south of the train tracks, at 4th and Murphy. Featuring locally crafted fresh and canned goods, honey, fresh produce, coffee, and more. A favorite of locals, and very kid-friendly.

Alpine Public Library: A beautiful, modern facility offering children’s programming, a bookstore, free wifi and computer access, and more.

Kid-Friendly Day and/or Weekend Trips from Alpine

Chihuahuan Desert Research Institute: Wander through a beautifully maintained cactus garden, learn about the native plants at the visitor’s center, and take a family hike along the numerous trails. Most are relatively short (under two miles total) and easy, but don’t forget to always pack water and snacks.

McDonald Observatory: Located along the scenic mountain loop 20 minutes past downtown Fort Davis, this UT-run observatory offers families and future astronomers an opportunity to see giant telescopes up close, learn more about space, and even look through telescopes during evening star parties. A don’t-wanna-miss experience for families!

Fort Davis National Historic Site: Explore the original barracks, hospital, and more in one of the most beautiful, original forts in the country. Stop into the visitor’s center and pick up the junior ranger challenge, a scavenger hunt that rewards kids with a beautiful woven badge!

Davis Mountains State Park: Stop by the birdwatching station, which houses kids’ activities and a viewing window to observe countless species of birds. At the end of the day, be sure to drive to the top of the mountain for the best sunset-watching experience in the area.

Balmorhea State Park: One of the world’s largest spring-fed swimming pools—and my personal favorite place on earth. The pool is open year-round, and stays a constant 72°F to 76°F year-round, making swimming during the cooler months feel surprisingly warm—it even emits steams during the winter! Full of catfish and turtles, and complete with multiple diving boards for the daredevils in your life.

Big Bend National Park: Boquillas Trail, Santa Elena Canyon, and other paved and relatively short hikes are very family friendly, and there are countless longer trails for more experienced hikers and families with older kids. You can also try soaking in hot springs overlooking the Rio Grande, although it’s most appealing to do so during the cooler months. Don’t forget to stop at the visitor’s center in Panther Junction and grab a bite at the restaurant at the Chisos Mountain Lodge, which boasts a stunning view of the iconic “window,” aptly named for two vertical rock walls that frame a seemingly endless desert vista. A couple short trails start at Chisos Mountain Lodge. The full window trail should be reserved for kids 5 and up, or infants and toddlers that can be carried in a hiking backpack for a few hours. If you do visit the park, don’t miss the new Fossil Discovery Exhibit, which is as beautiful as it is informational.

Grocery Stores

Blue Water Natural Foods: An off-the-beaten-path foodie paradise, featuring an extensive selection of all-natural products.

Porter’s Thriftway: Although there are two locations in town, make sure to stop at the one on 5th Street, which has an expansive selection of wine. And if the wine and beer aren’t enough, Twin Peaks Liquor has a super selection of everything your heart could possibly desire.

For a complete list of dining, shopping, lodging, and more, visit the well-curated visitalpinetx.com.

My daughter Luz perfecting “the pose” atop Hancock Hill.

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